“But the little black lamb had to come from somewhere,” he reasoned, “and I would have known the answer, had I not been so careless as to fall asleep in the middle of the day.”
For the many years he had been a shepherd, it had always been Ishma’s custom to sit down and eat his lunch when the sun was high overhead, and then rest for a while. But never had he so much as dozed for a moment, until one day he did fall asleep. It was for only a minute or two—he could tell that by his shadow—but when he opened his eyes the little black lamb stood before him. When he saw it, Ishma cried out and beat his breast, for it was well known in the Judean hills that a black lamb is the omen of bad luck. Many a whispering plainsman had told of how, when such an outcast was born in the field, the heartless shepherd hid it under his cloak and took it to the hills to die.
When Ishma heard these things he always shook his head sadly, and promised himself, “If the dear God ever sees fit to send one of my ewes a black lamb, I shall care for it as tenderly as the rest of my flock”
In the first place, it was always going astray, and then Ishma would have to leave his flock and roam the valleys and hills until he found it. And he could not count the times it made a false step and fell into a crevice so that he would have to pull it out with his crook, only to find it bruised and bleeding. To be sure, he would anoint its wounds with oil, but not always without complaining. The little black lamb would bleat so pitifully, Ishma would be filled with remorse, and remembering his promise, he would gather the lamb in his arms and comfort it. Then the little black lamb would lay its head on Ishma’s shoulder and go to sleep like a tired child.
And, as if going astray and making false steps were not enough, it hadn’t the slightest sense about grazing. Even the youngest lamb in Ishma’s flock knew that sheep graze in one direction, and follow a leader. But not the little black lamb! Whenever Ishma looked back, all he could see was a black tail, and time after time he would run back to pick up the lamb and turn it around.
“Follow the leader, you stupid one!” he would shout. The little balck lamb would hang its head in shame. And because he was ashamed too for breaking his promis again, Ishma would reach down and stroke the lamb gently.
“Never mind, little one,” he would say. “Some day I think you will learn to go the right way. The trouble is all with me, I have not patience. Together we shall learn—you and I, patience.”
For the idea was slowly forming in Ishma’s mind that the little black lamb was sent to him for a reason, and in the fullness of time he would understand.
As the days went by, Ishma knew that as he grew in patience, the little black lamb grew in obedience.
Then came the day Ishma was never to forget. The little black lamb did not go astray once, but whenever Ishma looked back, he could see a black head nibbling contentedly in the green pastures. Sometimes the lamb would look up at Ishma as if to say, “You see, I am learning to go the right way.”
And so when nightfall came, Ishma led his flock to a little hill and they lay down to rest. But he took the little black lamb in his arms and held it against his breast. “Forgive me, my little friend,” he whispered, “for all the times I have been impatient and scolded you, and called you stupid. Today you were so well behaved, I thought you must be sick. But your eyes are bright, and your little nose is as cool as the still waters where you refresh yourself each day. So I know you are not sick, but that at last you are learning to go the right way.”
The little lamb sighed happily and snuggled closer to Ishma’s heart.
“There is somthing else I must tell you, little one, Of the hundred in my fold, I love you best of all.”
But the little black lamb was not listening. It had fallen fast asleep. Ishma smiled to himself. “I suppose,” he thought, “being so well behaved is enough to tire one as small as you. I, too, am tired and must sleep. But how I wish I could stay awake and watch this night. For never have the stars seemed as bright, and never have the heavens declared the glory of God with such splendor.”
How long he slept he did not know. It was the little black lamb pawing him gently that wakened Ishma. He sat up and rubbed his eyes, for there was a strange light. Below on the plains he could see shepherds in the distance hurrying toward Bethlehem. Hiding the lamb under his cloak, Ishma jumped to his feet and hurried after them, marveling at the lightness of his step and the speed with which he ran.
“I am like a boy again,” he thought, “running across the plains for sheer joy.”
As he came nearer the group, a shepherd boy ran up and stopped him.
“Oh, Ishma,” he cried excitedly. “we were watching our flocks when a strange light appeared and frightened us, but an angel came and told us not to be afraid. He said that a Savior was born in the City of David, and that we should find Him, a Baby, in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” The boy stopped to catch his breath.
“You will scarcely believe what I have to say, Ishma, but it is true! We found a young mother and her newborn Son in the stable of the Inn. Such a beautiful child you have never seen! And to think of the shame of nothing but a manger with straw for a bed. And what is even worse, we came in such haste not one of us thought to bring a gift. Do you have something, Ishma, if nothing more than a bright stone in your pocket to give the baby?”
Ishma shook his head sadly. “I have nothing.” he told the boy. “I did not hear the angel because I fell asleep.”
Under Ishma’s cloak the little black lamb moved, and in that moment Ishma understood. He turned to the boy, his eyes filled with happiness.
“Yes, yes,” he said joyfully, “I just remembered. I do have a present after all. Come let us go and give it to the Baby.”
The shepherd boy hesistated for a moment, and then the words came swiftly.
“Ishma, could you, would you please say the gift is from all of us? Then we shall not be ashamed.”
“It shall be so,”Ishma told him gently, “because truly it is a gift from all of us.”
When they reached the stable, the shepherds made way for Ishma, looking at him with great respect, for he was loved and revered by all of them.
It was as the boy had said. Never had Ishma seen such a beautiful child.
“Have you noticed,” he asked the others, “how the starbeams make the little crown around His head?”
They nodded silently, overwhelmed by the beauty of the scene before them. Ishma turned to speak to the mother, and as she smiled, he wondered how, in eyes that were filled with joy, there could be sorrow, too.
“I am Ishma,” he told her, “the oldest of all the shepherds. In our land it is customary to bring a gift to a newborn child, and so I bring a token from all of us.”
The shepherds gathered closer to Ishma, eager to see what manner of gift he had for the Child. They smiled confidently nodding at each other as if to say, “We can depend on Ishma to have a worthy gift.”
“There was a time,” Ishma continued, “when we would have been ashamed of our offering. Each of us, at times, has hidden one of these under his cloak, even as I do now, so that no ne else would know his secret.”
The shepherds whispered anxiously to each other—there was only one thing they ever hid beneath their cloaks. Ishma raised his hand to quiet them, and then he went on.
“Tonight, we are no longer ashamed of our gift, but bring it here with reverence to the Christ Child.”
As Ishma paused, the little black lamb jumped nimbly from the folds of his cloak and knelt beside the manger.
“We know God sent this Child to us so that we might learn to lvoe each other, even as He Himself loves all the world, even a little black lamb.”
And as the shepherds knelt in adoration before the manger, the night air filled with the heavenly music of the angelic choir, and the star overhead gleamed even more brightly.